What Is Masonry?
Freemasonry describes itself as a "beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols". The symbolism is mainly, but not exclusively, drawn from the manual tools of stonemasons - the square and compasses, the level and plumb rule, the trowel, among others.
Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that traces its origins to the local fraternities of stonemasons, which from the end of the fourteenth century regulated the qualifications of masons and their interaction with authorities and clients. The degrees of freemasonry, its gradual system, retain the three grades of medieval craft guilds, those of Apprentice, journeyman or Fellow (now called Fellowcraft), and Master Mason. These are the degrees offered by craft or blue lodge Freemasonry. There are additional degrees, which vary with locality and jurisdiction, and are now administered by different bodies than the craft degrees.
Masonic Ritual consists of degree ceremonies. Candidates for Freemasonry are progressively initiated into Freemasonry, first in the degree of Entered Apprentice. Sometime later, in a separate ceremony, they will be passed to the degree of Fellowcraft, and finally, they will be raised to the degree of Master Mason. In all of these ceremonies, the candidate is entrusted with passwords, signs, and grips particular to his new rank. Another ceremony is the annual installation of the Master and officers of the lodge. Another ceremony is the annual installation of the Master and officers. This installation ceremony is often open to the public.
Most lodges have some sort of social calendar, allowing Masons and their partners to meet in a less ritualized environment. Often coupled with these events is the obligation placed on every Mason to contribute to charity. This occurs at both Lodge and Grand Lodge levels. Masonic charities contribute to many fields from education to disaster relief.
These private local lodges form the backbone of Freemasonry, and a Freemason will necessarily have been initiated into one of these. There also exist specialist Lodges where Masons meet to celebrate anything from sport to Masonic research. The rank of Master Mason also entitles a Freemason to explore Masonry further through other degrees, administered separately from the craft, or "blue lodge" degrees described here, but having a similar format to their meetings.
Because each Masonic jurisdiction is independent, each sets its own procedures. Thus the wording of the ritual, the number of officers present, the layout of the meeting room, etc. varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, the basic emphasis of each degree is relatively consistent.
The officers of the lodge are elected or appointed annually. Every Masonic Lodge has a Master, two Wardens, a secretary, and a treasurer. There is also a Tyler, or outer guard, who is always present outside the door of a working lodge. Other offices vary between jurisdictions.
Ritual and Symbolism
Freemasonry describes itself as a "beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols". The symbolism is mainly, but not exclusively, drawn from the manual tools of stonemasons - the square and compasses, the level and plumb rule, the trowel, among others. A moral lesson is attached to each of these tools, although the assignment is by no means consistent. The meaning of the symbolism is taught and explored through ritual.
All Freemasons begin their journey in the "craft" by being progressively initiated, passed and raised into the three degrees of craft, or blue lodge Masonry. During these three rituals, the candidate is progressively taught the meanings of the Lodge symbols and entrusted with grips, signs and words to signify to other Masons that he has been so initiated. The initiations are part allegory and part lecture and revolve around the construction of the Temple of Solomon, and the artistry and death of his chief architect. The degrees are those of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason.
In some jurisdictions, the main themes of each degree are illustrated by tracing boards.